Fort Trump Sets a Dangerous Precedent

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Polish President Andrzej Duda’s offer to call a military base “Fort Trump” if the U.S. agrees to set one up in his country was, of course, a joke — but not entirely.

For Poland, President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to security alliances is an opportunity to achieve its long-held strategic goal of establishing a permanent American military presence on its territory.

If it works out on the terms Duda offered Trump, the deal will set an unwelcome precedent for other U.S. allies — but it may also save U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars.

“The president offered us much more than $2 billion to do this, and so we’re looking at it,” Trump said at a joint press conference with Duda. “We’re looking at it from the standpoint of, No. 1, military protection for both countries, and also cost.”

Trump has a habit of throwing big numbers around. That he, and not Duda, mentioned the $2 billion offer makes the number suspect, especially as Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has since denied that any specific amounts had been discussed.

But Trump wasn’t exactly improvising. In a May paper, the Polish Defense Ministry said the government would offer as much as $2 billion to build the necessary infrastructure for stationing a U.S. armored division in Poland. Back then, Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said the idea wasn’t even on the table.

Trump’s language on Tuesday was very different. Duda had offered him what he likes: money and gold letters spelling his name.

Two billion dollars is both a lot and not much. It’s a lot compared with the $1 billion the German government has contributed over 10 years toward maintaining the U.S. military’s presence there. It also amounts to a sizable chunk of Poland’s $11.1 billion of annual defense spending.

Marek Swierczynski, a security analyst at the Warsaw think tank Polytika Insight, says the U.S. base can’t be funded from this existing budget — and the government could ask people to pitch in with contributions. He told me the project is that important for Poland, which realizes that it can’t defend itself effectively without inviting U.S. troops. In that context, $2 billion may be a small price for the geopolitical security of a permanent U.S. presence. “It would mean moving the line of defense and the border of the West 1,000 kilometers to the east,” Swierczynski says.

It’s also not a huge amount relative to what the U.S. spends on its military bases. In his 2015 book, “Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World,” David Vine estimated the number of U.S. military bases of all kinds at 800 and their annual running cost at $71.8 billion, not counting the cost of keeping troops and bases in war zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

A new big base in Poland would likely increase that figure regardless of Duda’s contribution. But if it takes up the Polish offer, the U.S. could hope to cut spending in future: A precedent for more burden-sharing would be set. 

By framing the matter as plainly as he did — “You come, we pay,” in the words of Swierczynski — Duda took the risk of displeasing fellow NATO allies, who may be asked to follow suit or face a wilting U.S. commitment. But they may have little choice but to adopt this transactional approach.

The prospects of a European Union-based security alliance, which both Germany and France would like to establish because of concerns about the reliability of the U.S. military guarantee, are vague. Trump’s demands aren’t, and yielding to them means preserving a status quo that has worked for decades.

Of course, Trump may not be in office long enough to make the decision to station U.S. troops in Poland. But here Duda isn’t taking much of a risk. His country won’t give up on its all-important project after Trump is gone. It will just tailor its pitch for a permanent military presence to his successor.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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